The authoritarian president of Belarus has pardoned all six political prisoners in the former Soviet republic, including a former opposition presidential candidate.

Freeing political prisoners was a condition set by the European Union and United States for improved relations with Belarus, which has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

The EU and U.S. toughened sanctions on Belarus after the violent suppression of peaceful protests during the 2010 presidential election.

Nikolai Statkevich, a candidate in those elections, was later sentenced to six years in prison for what the court said was plotting riots.

Lukashenko's office said the president, "proceeding from the principle of humanism," decided Saturday to pardon and release Statkevich and the five others.

Belarus holds its next presidential election in October.